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The Year's Best Science Fiction Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection by Gardner Dozois (ed)
Review by Ernest Lilley
St. Martin's Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 0312363354
Date: 10 July 2007 List Price $21.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Gardner Dozois' annual collection of short (though there is a considerable amount of longish stuff here) science fiction is a must read for anyone with an interest in the genre, whether it's to find out where the field is heading or simply to enjoy what the editor has gleaned from his panning for gold in the past year of science fiction.

Selected Story Reviews

Tin Marsh by Michael Swanwick / The Djinn's Wife by Ian McDonald / The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum / Where The Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker / Kin by Bruce McAllister / Signal To Noise by Alistair Reynolds / The Big Ice by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestold / Bow Shock by Gregory Benford / In the River by Justin Stanchfield / Incarnation Day by Walter Jon Williams / As Far As You Can Go by Greg van Eckhout / Good Mountain by Robert Reed / I Hold My Father's Paws by David E. Levine / Dead Men Walking by Paul J. McAuley / Home Movies by Mary Rosenblum

Though you could skip the introduction to The Year's Best SF, you'd be mad to do so. Really. Every year we get to listen to one of, if not the, most knowledgeable and articulate voices in SF recap the year that was, and if the field is of any interest to you, his analysis is required reading.

Gardner notes that the internet is becoming the place to go for good SF, notably sites like Baen's Universe, and at the same time urges us to go out and subscribe to a print publication, so that they might not perish altogether. To this end he devotes a fair amount of space to subscription addresses, noting that it has never been easier to subscribe with a few clicks of mouse. Small press is doing well too he notes, offering a page of listings for them as well. Gardner points out that according to Locus, there were some 2,495 books of interest to the SF field, and he posits that this is more than anyone can read, unless they make a full time job of it. Evidentially Gardner reads much faster than I do, but he does point out that he doesn't have the time to read a lot of novels, focusing instead on short fiction. His list of notable novels is certainly worth checking, even for those of us who read a fair number of them. His list of short stories is even more so since it's impossible for anyone to keep up with everything going on there.

And then we get to read his choice selections.

Themes

This year finds an interesting number of stories about children in dire circumstances taking a stand for survival. Stories I liked include "Where The Golden Apples Grow" by Kage Baker, "Kin" by Bruce McAllister, "Incarnation Day" by Walter Jon Williams, and "As Far As You Can Go" by Greg van Eckhout. Of course, SF has always featured young protagonists stepping up to the plate, but of late I've heard cries that too many stories reflect the aging of the readership, comprising stories about rejuvenation and old folks making good. Of the stories here, it's tough to pick a favorite, not surprising considering the collections high standards, but I did have trouble connecting with "The House Beyond Your Sky", though I suspect the fault is mine and that giving it a rereading or two would open it up to me. In general the collection delighted me in myriad ways, and as I mention in the detailed reviews, I'd really like to see "As Far As You Can Go" become a chapter in a longer work, though I doubt that's what the author plans.

The high frontier seems to be getting to be a harder and harder place to make a go of it, no doubt the consequence of good data coming back from a half century or so of space probes and deep space observations. "Tin Marsh" by Michael Swanwick turns the grizzled but reliant prospector team paradigm on its head.

Relationships aren't easy either, as "Signal To Noise" by Alistair Reynolds (who has two stories in the collection) points out, even when you've got multiple continuums to try and work things out in. Gregory Benford's "Bow Shock" reveals the drama and hardship in trying to keep a job as a research astronomer and a girlfriend at the same time, but reminds (or reassures) us that it's not all about us, and that there are bigger issues out there. In "The Djinn's Wife" by Ian McDonald, we see some difficulties in interspecies relationships, not to be unexpected when you're married to an AI with superhuman intelligence, though it does appear that intelligence doesn't lead to social skills or comprehension in machines any more than it does in SF readers. Note to researchers: If we're going to make AIs in our own image...could we please make them more thoughtful than we are? "In the River" by Justin Stanchfield is another story with a struggling relationship in the mix, and again it's the researcher that's gotten immersed in their work, while the spouse's eye wanders. Time and tides wait for no maam, it turns out.

And families are tough to deal with as well. "The Big Ice" by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestold retells the old "let's kill off the missing heir" story, though in new terms and not quite as wonderfully as I've come to expect from Jay, at least. "I Hold My Father's Paws" by David E. Levine on the other hand is a fine piece of family struggle set against new options,

Breaking the stories up into these themes doesn't mean that they don't each contain elements of the others, for instance, family conflict is at the heart of many of the child stories, notably "Incarnation Day", though the others tend to deal with the classic solution young adults have always found in SF...running off to find themselves somewhere else. The power struggle between young and old often crosses lines between themes, but sometimes you stand and fight...and sometimes you come back to face the music years later. Both techniques are served here, so you can compare results between stories.

Overall

Though there were quite a few stories in here I liked very well, if the collection is any indication, it seemed to me to be a slow year for SF. I'll admit that I find the novella an uncomfortable length for stories, as it has to grab me enough to want to read all those pages without leaving me disappointed that it's only a fragment of what generally seems like a larger work. I'm thus inclined towards shorter fiction, which can be read at one go...while leaving one time to have a life. If I'm going to read longer works, I might as well be reading a novel, and longer works seem to be the way of things in this collection.

The number of authors that appeared in both this and other collections with Gardner in the credits also got to the point where it became more notable if they hadn't than if they had. Of course, he's at least co-edited a number of them over the year in question, so it may be hard to avoid.

Selected Story Reviews:

Tin Marsh by Michael Swanwick / The Djinn's Wife by Ian McDonald / The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum / Where The Golden Apples Grow by Kage Baker / Kin by Bruce McAllister / Signal To Noise by Alistair Reynolds / The Big Ice by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestold / Bow Shock by Gregory Benford / In the River by Justin Stanchfield / Incarnation Day by Walter Jon Williams / As Far As You Can Go by Greg van Eckhout / Good Mountain by Robert Reed / I Hold My Father's Paws by David E. Levine / Dead Men Walking by Paul J. McAuley / Home Movies by Mary Rosenblum

"Tin Marsh" by Michael Swanwick gives us a new take on two classic SF ideas when a pair of mismatched prospectors marching across the surface of Venus search for loopholes in the three laws wired into them. These laws aren't for robots though, they're chipped into humans forcing them to commit no violence, protect company property, and save yourself as the other laws allow. As Swanwick points out, this allows the free ranging foragers to operate in near perfect anarchy, but it also allows some wicked tensions to build up on the back lot of hell that Venus turns out to be. That's fine, at least until one of the partner's chip gets fried...and the most dangerous game is back on. Swanwick is a wonderfully consistent writer, always brilliant and engaging. It's great to have a hard SF story from him in the collection.

"The Djinn's Wife" by Ian McDonald whose excellent "Verthandi's Ring", was included in the New Space Opera. Here he takes us to India in the not all that distant future where a woman falls in love with a 21st century Djinn, which would be an AI. Like most mixed marriages, it has its challenges. Esha She may be a talented artist of Indian dance, but her husband is a nearly all knowing AI diplomat, though one from a country other than Eshas. We have to wonder though, if he's so wise, why he doesn't understand that it's going to piss her off eventually to know he's only giving her a tiny fraction of his distributed processing power? Human males know to at least have the grace to lie about it, after all. But if hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, what lengths will a heartsick AI go to?

This is in many ways a classic AI story, where the machine goes rogue and is hunted down, but the idioms used are all from Indian lore, and it's very nicely done.

"The House Beyond Your Sky" by Benjamin Rosenbaum takes us to a time when the universe is old and full of smart matter, a popular device these days. This is a head twister of a story, best to ride out and reflect on at the end. Gods (or what passes for them) and teddy bears and little girls and pocket universes may make a good concept, but it was a bit hard for me to warm up to.

"Where The Golden Apples Grow" by Kage Baker turns to another pair living the hardscrabble life of a space pioneer, this time to Bill and his dad Billy Townsend. Bill is twelve, the third child born on Mars, and has spent most of his life cooped up in the cab of his dad's Martian ice hauler. If you asked him, he'd say it pretty much sucks. So working on the covered farms seems like wide open freedom to him. Like the pair in Swanwick's "Tin Marsh" they're an odd couple, with the child taking care of the man as best he can. Which is a challenge, considering Earth opened the doors on its mental institutions to fill the openings in dangerous jobs on the red planet. The second child born on mars turns out to be from a farm family, so naturally he wants to be a hauler. So when fate throws them together it's bound to be an educational experience for both.

This story also has a hook into one in the New Space Opera, as it's set on the same Mars as the author's story "Maelstrom" And even some of the same sights, including the Edgar Allen Poe center for the performing arts and an appearance by "Mother" the ultimate Martian matron. I expect we'll see all the mars stories in a collection at some point, which will be worth picking up if they stay as good as this pair.

"Kin" by Bruce McAllister stars an odder couple yet. Once again a twelve year old boy is in the act, this time his "partner" is an alien assassin he tries to hire to stop the government from killing his unborn sister. There are a lot of interesting bits in this story, and some nice nuance in the actions and ideas. As Gardner points out in his intro, McAllister may not be prolific in his output, but what he does offer us if excellent work.

"Signal To Noise" by Alistair Reynolds (by now we hardly think it's worth noting that the author made it into The New Space Opera) is a twisty take on communications between alternate realities, and there's a nice bit on how air travel gets banned in the future, leaving armchair tourism via telepresence as the only option, though in the main character's case, he's bound to visit another reality to get closure in this one. The notion isn't unique, but the technology is fresh, and the key to the story is in the title as the bandwidth between realities wanes as they diverge from a common branching point. All in all it's got some interesting ideas in it, ones we'll be seeing more of as quantum computing takes off.

"The Big Ice" by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestold recombines the talents of two gifted storytellers. Having just finished Jay Lake's first novel, Mainspring, I looked forward to this story, but I didn't love it as much as I'd hoped. I'll have to check out Ruth's work on its own to see if it's just a matter of voice. The story centers around a quake, a coup, and a team of researchers, one of whom is a refugee from a royal house. They don't quite call it that, and its nicely clothed in genetic mods and future politics, but basically this is a story about ascension to the throne, and the threat of the missing heir.

"Bow Shock" by Gregory Benford - SF does not get harder than it does when Greg Benford is writing it, and here we get to see the drama inside the life of a researcher, one whose universe has just collapsed into the black hole of publishing too late. What's remarkable is how Benford can turn an astronomer's career (and personal) crisis into an edge of the seat story, complete with an ending that moves it above simple concerns and onto a bigger stage.

"In the River" by Justin Stanchfield - this is a nicely done story about the dangers in going native and trying to come back again, where we meet a researcher who had transformed herself to swim with an alien race in order to learn their mathematics, but to bring back the treasure she has found, she has to remember what being human is like, and this turns out to be harder than she'd imagined. Gardner makes the comment that evidentially you can go home again, and he's right, but as anyone who's tried finds out, who you were outside has an unsettling way of falling away from you leaving the self you had grown away from staring back at you from the mirror. Like "Bow Wave", it's also an example of what happens to relationships when researchers go wild, or in this case native.

"Incarnation Day" by Walter Jon Williams - Gardner reminds us that Williams received well deserved Nebulas for "Daddy's World" in 2001 and "The Green Leopard Plague" in 2005, which I'd enjoyed, but had forgotten for the moment. Hopefully he'll be up for more awards with stories like this, which I found as engaging as TGLP, but with a more cohesive story line.

In "Incarnation Day," a young woman has an imaginary friend that she talks to about her life. Actually, as she will tell you, Alison's friend isn't imaginary, being Dr. Samuel Johnson, whom she'd met in a class on the Age of Reason. It's the conversation that's imaginary. Of course this isn't any different from a "Dear Diary" setup, but in this forum it's fun. It's probably the most "normal" part of the story, containing, as did "Green Leopard Plague", an assortment of transformed humans, and their personal crises. The delightful kicker is that Dr. Sam is an imaginary friend once removed from reality, because Alison is a virtual child, waiting until she's old enough to be decanted into a physical body and declared a real adult like her friend Fahd, whose "incarnation day" sets the stage for the tale. Childbearing and rearing, as we've seen in several other stories, is a real challenge on the high frontier, one WJW solves with virtual children. I like the ideas, the spunky teen angst, and the counterpoint offered by Samuel Johnson's periodic interjections, taken from the philosopher's battery of quotes on human nature. I'm also grateful for his use of the word "neotony" which is one of my favorite observations about what we find attractive and why anime looks that way, so go look it up.

"Incarnation Day" is the first story in this collection to score top marks across the board from me. It's engaging, full of innovative, well considered ideas about plausible technological conundrums, and it's very well crafted. The writing voice is too comfortable to give it creds for being progressive in style, but that's part of what I like about it. It's easy to see why WJW has picked up the acclaim he has, and I can only expect more to follow.

"As Far As You Can Go" by Greg van Eckhout is another story that I really liked. Though Greg is a fairly new author, he has an impressive stock of sales behind him and a bright future ahead. "As Far As You Can Go" is a brilliant story about a girl from a dismal world who sets out on a trek to the sea with a broken down robot with a romantically dysfunctional brain, making him a more self aware sort of Don Quixote. Across an unfriendly future they march, and of course it becomes a voyage of self discovery for the girl, though she does get to visit the beach. It has very nice tone, and good world creation. If I hadn't known better from the editor intro, I would have guessed that he was a Brit, though I suppose he could be, and is only hiding out in Phoenix. This story has a good arc, but despite that, it's the first one I'd like to see expanded into a larger work.

"Good Mountain" by Robert Reed starts at a jog, with the feeling that the story has been going on for some time, and that this is an excerpt from a larger work. We join the characters in a distant future as their train (a giant worm) pulls into the station at World's End. The station is perhaps more aptly named because something drastic appears to be in the works for the world than in its location, since there are obviously stations beyond it. We soon learn that in this future land masses are floating islands, and the biggest of them, the Continent has been steadily acquiring new landmasses on its periphery as smaller islands bump into it. We also discover that the Continent is breaking up and consuming itself in an orgy of flame as bladders of flammable gas below its surface are ruptured. Jopale, our protagonist, is on his way to find an artificial island that had been launched some time before. He's spent all his money to get there, but has no promise of a place. Still, as he says to a nervous fellow traveler, if not, they won't be any worse off than anyone else.

It's a fine piece of far future world building, set in a time the earth (or whatever earth this is) has stopped rotating, and the continents have worn down to nothing. It stand on its own fairly well, but the story clearly stretches before and after it, though I don't know if it that story has been written down or not.

"I Hold My Father's Paws" by David E. Levine is a fine walk in the park with a dad that's gone to the dogs in the ultimate act of furry transformation.

"He was a magnificent animal. He was a pathetic freak. He was a marvel of biotechnology. He was an arrogant icon of self indulgence.
He was a dog.
He was Jason's father."

It's a story about a man who wants to give up his humanity ironically so that he can become the man he wasn't. It's quite good and quite clever as well. I did find it a bit disturbing, since I'm a fan of dogs and have my own issues with dads, but that doesn't take away from the excellence of Levine's writing.

"Dead Men Walking" by Paul J. McAuley starts out with a familiar premise, a man in a pressure suit telling his story to a recorder while he sits, dying, on the surface of a moon. One of the shorter stories, it's one of the better ones as well.

"Home Movies" by Mary Rosenblum - Something of an interesting take on Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" though this would be more a case of "We Can Experience It For You For A Very High Price." It would almost make a nice crossover with Kage Baker's recent Mars stories since it features an aged Mars matron with money, power and regrets that wants to experience what she might have had if she'd stayed on Earth. It didn't grab me at first, and I'm not sure it makes the "Year's Best" cut, but it does get more interesting as it progresses. It's more romance fiction than SF to me, and I'm afraid I felt it was trumped up tech with a telegraphed ending.

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